Many Republicans don’t like to admit this out loud, especially the power establishment that was close to the Bush administration or served in its upper echelons, but the Bush administration was a first class political disaster for the president’s party. Until Republicans find a way to talk about what went wrong and how future Republican administrations will do better, the GOP will face a stiff headwind of well-merited public distrust.
This will be especially true in the realm of foreign policy. President Obama’s own foreign policy approval ratings are sinking, but Republicans should not take much comfort in these numbers. The failures, real and perceived, of the Bush administration hang over the Republican Party like a dark cloud, and the failure to deal openly and honestly with the past could hobble the GOP for years.
I don’t agree with the professional Bush-bashers and am perfectly willing to give the Bush administration its due. Not every decision the President made was bad, and the circumstances of his administration were difficult and harsh. President Bush was, is, a decent and honorable man who did his level best in the world’s most difficult job. The Democrats who ran against him might have done considerably worse. Some of the things that went wrong were not his fault and more went right under Bush than most of his critics understood. Many of the failings of those years were due more to execution than to vision and to tone more than substance. It was also true, and brutally true at times, that the press corps did everything it could to shine the brightest possible spotlight on every pimple on the face of the Bush administration. There was no wart, no scar, no stretch mark on the Bush administration that didn’t get its full fifteen minutes of fame.
But make every allowance you can, discount the press bias and polish up the accomplishments as much as you like, and the conclusion still cannot be evaded: George W. Bush’s presidency was not a success and its result was to diminish the credibility of the ideas he professed and to damage the brand of the party whose standard he bore.
A lot of official Republican discourse tries to skate past the failures of the Bush years, but this won’t do. It’s a bit like a hostess trying to keep up the bright cocktail party chatter around an eight hundred pound tuna fish rotting in the living room. It isn’t convincing, and the effort does not inspire trust in her judgment. Voters are very familiar with the multiple policy failures of the Bush years (two long unfinished wars, a botched hurricane, no significant domestic reform, frozen immobility on immigration, deficits out of control, the middle class in deepening trouble, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression); the failure of the party to grapple with those failures, to ask what went wrong and what must change, and above all to tell voters why the next time will be different is the key to Republican vulnerability at the polls today.
Let’s begin with the obvious: the wars in the Middle East. I am by no means the harshest critic around of the Bush administration’s war policy. I supported the Iraq War going in because I trusted Colin Powell’s judgment on WMD and because I did not (and do not) think that containing Saddam Hussein was a viable option in the long run. Once we were in, and things were a mess, I continued to support the war because I believed (and believe) that cutting and running would make a bad situation worse. I did not and do not admire many of the foreign policy types who tried to disassociate themselves from a war they supported when the going got tough, and I felt then and still feel that once we were in Iraq we had responsibilities that we had to fulfill.
But that didn’t mean I wasn’t horrified by the clumsy and foolish international diplomacy surrounding our entrance into that war, appalled by the discovery that the administration failed to find the WMD it claimed were there, and then sickened and disgusted by the serial policy failures that marked year after year after year of unacceptable policy confusion, mixed messages, and strategic flailing about in the sand. I counseled patience during those years and spoke out against cutting and running and I challenged the panicky chorus of voices saying that everything was lost. I supported the surge as a last ditch effort to prevent an even worse catastrophe, and applauded President Bush’s wisdom and courage in going ahead with it. That did not, however, make up for the years of poor choices leading up to the surge. Avoiding defeat after years of bungling in a war you should never have started is better than embracing defeat in that position. But this isn’t the kind of achievement that earns you a place on Mount Rushmore.
The war in Afghanistan was unavoidable after 9/11 and I don’t subscribe to the dreamy little theory cherished by some Democrats that we’d have won that war in short order if the President and the country hadn’t been sidetracked by Iraq. But it remains the case that President Bush started a war in Afghanistan that he failed either to finish or to explain to the American people. The combination of the two wars, and the atmosphere of strategic chaos around both war efforts for so many years left a devastating impression about Republican policy competence in the mind of the Americans who might otherwise be sympathetic to Republican ideas.
However, beyond the central and inescapable facts that the Bush administration started a war in Iraq on inadequate grounds, pursued some of the most inept pre-war diplomacy in American history as it moved toward war, administered Iraq incompetently, failed to explain its policy or its strategy convincingly either to the American people or to the world, and blundered ineffectively against the insurgency for years before finally getting its act together, there are some other problems for the GOP with the toxic legacy of the Bush years.
One issue that the GOP foreign policy world will have to address involves democracy and democracy promotion. As the WMD story lost credibility, the Bush administration placed greater public emphasis on democracy promotion as its goal in Iraq, and during the happier phase of the Arab Spring Bush defenders pointed to the democracy movement in the Arab world as justification for the Bush policies.
Perhaps, but from the standpoint of Republican credibility on foreign affairs, these are dangerous arguments. Egypt is a splintered reed of a staff, warned the prophet Isaiah; it will pierce the hand of all who lean on it. Certainly Republicans are less willing to claim that the Egyptian Revolution is the child of Bush’s Iraq invasion today than some were when the revolution looked prettier. Was the Arab world in 2003 and is it now on the cusp of dramatic moves toward something most Americans would recognize as democracy? And if so, how engaged should American foreign policy be in trying to make that happen? Are we or should we be in the business of promoting democracy with ground troops?
History’s ultimate judgment on the relationship of democracy, the Iraq War and the Arab Spring may be different from contemporary conclusions, but that won’t help Republicans now. Here and now the argument that Bush’s Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics. Most Americans view the current regime in Iraq as anything but a model of enlightened democracy, and given the sectarian war sweeping the region it is hard to be optimistic about its immediate future. Iraq is much closer to renewed Sunni-Shiite civil war than to settled democracy at the moment, and defenders of the Bush legacy probably need to be bracing themselves against news of more trouble in that unhappy land. (Some will blame future troubles on President Obama’s overhasty withdrawal. They will have a point, but there is a difference between a logical argument and a politically effective one. Politically, the argument that any trouble in Iraq is Obama’s fault for getting out rather than Bush’s for going in is a loser.)
More broadly, news from across the region confirms most Americans in their belief that the road to democracy in the Arab world remains a long and a winding one. Right now regionally as well as in Iraq the most powerful political forces in the Middle East seem to care much more about prosecuting the Sunni-Shiite war than about building anything Americans would recognize as a democracy. Replacing pro-American dictators with incompetent Islamists may well be a step forward in Arab history as a whole; the American people are unlikely to think the change worth significant expenditures of money or blood.
One recommendation: more GOP democracy promotion wonks would benefit from a deep study of the history of democracy promotion in statecraft, a history that extends at least as far back as Lord Palmerston’s tenure as British foreign minister in the 1830s. From the failed South American republics of the 1820s through the Arab Spring and Burma experiences of today, there is a long, sometimes depressing and very rich story of primarily but not only British and American efforts to promote liberal politics and policies overseas. The Carlist wars in Spain, the independence movements in Italy and Greece, over a century of promoting reform and liberalism in China, the Balkans, the Ottoman Middle East and Latin America: deeper knowledge of and reflection on this history could allow a more nuanced, pragmatic and politically sustainable approach to democracy promotion to emerge. Democracy promotion is not a new diplomatic idea, and the pitfalls and potholes that the Bush administration encountered have been met with before. What one might call the high liberal tradition of statesmanship, venerable and seasoned, offers rich resources for Americans today thinking about their country’s place in the world, and an immersion in it would guard against some of the mistakes the Bush people made. It’s too bad that so many of today’s democracy crusaders have never really bothered to learn from the past.
Republicans wanting an active foreign policy need all the intellectual reinforcements and support they can get. Americans are not eager to send more troops overseas on nation building, democracy promotion missions in the Middle East, and if they were in such a mood they would not trust Republicans to shape the missions as things now stand. It is not my job to tell the GOP what its new approach should be, but some home truths need to be said. The bungling of the Bush years damaged public confidence in the competence of Republican foreign policy conduct, and the party needs to find ways to regain the trust that was lost.
It is partly about judgment. Americans want a president who won’t hesitate to shoot if there’s a burglar in the house, but they don’t want one who pops off the shotgun every time a squirrel makes a noise in the attic. The GOP has lost tremendous ground on the judgment issue and the party’s foreign policy wonks need to think about how they can respond.
Some conservatives will interpret this is a call to turn the party back over to the establishment’s wise men. Actually, I have a lot of respect for people like General Brent Scowcroft and George H. W. Bush, and I would not be surprised if President George W. Bush doesn’t wish he had listened to some of these calming voices a little more carefully in 2002-3.
But it isn’t that simple. Going back to the good old days is not a solution for America’s foreign policy challenges. The accelerating impact of the IT revolution on the nature of war (we’ve gone from RMA to cyber war in less than a decade), the complex dynamics of the emerging new great power system, the game of thrones in Asia, the economic crisis, the global consequences of the demographic slowdown and many other issues require that foreign policy in our time look forward rather than back. The GOP doesn’t so much need to turn back to its elder statesmen as it needs to start producing the younger statesmen (and stateswomen) who can lead the party forward.
This is not a call for a new party orthodoxy, much less an attempt (by a Democrat, no less) to mandate what the new Republican orthodoxy should be. I am not suggesting the formation of a circular firing squad or a bitter internecine debate over who was responsible for what. There are many different ways to analyze what happened in the Bush years and many different ways to think about lessons learned. It would be natural and healthy to see a variety of Republican takes on the Bush years emerge: neo-neo-conservatives would want to hold to some of the core ideas of W’s first term while articulating the need for certain carefully calibrated changes. We are already hearing from Rand Paul and others a neo-Taftian view of a scaled back American global mission. Others may try to integrate a broader strategic vision with an awareness of budget constraints; historian John Gaddis argues very persuasively that some of the best foreign policy in the Cold War came in times when policy makers believed that severe resource constraints forced the United States to make careful strategic choices.
The Republican Party like all parties in modern democracies doesn’t need a narrow orthodoxy on foreign policy or on anything else; it needs a rich discourse among competing schools of thought and visions. But the reality that cannot be avoided today is that those voices must be able to explain to the public why the choices they recommend will lead to different results than the ones that Bush got. More, the failure of more internationally minded Republicans to advance credible foreign policy approaches based on lessons learned from the Bush years opens the door to the neo-isolationists. If those within the GOP who believe in an active and global American foreign policy don’t distinguish themselves from the Bush approach, and offer a convincing critique and revision, they will inexorably lose ground within the party even as the party itself loses ground with the public.
Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come. This doesn’t mean GOPers need to harp incessantly on the subject, but the sooner individuals and the party as a whole can embrace and project a message of rethink and change, the sooner the country will be ready to listen to what else they have to say. The charge that the Bush administration was a disaster and that Republicans haven’t changed is the strongest weapon in the hands of Democratic politicians; Republicans must either wait for the public’s memories of the Bush administration to fade or they have to think about how they can distinguish themselves from the past.
Many Republicans will instinctively reject this approach and recoil from the thought of a public washing of the party’s dirty linen. Fair enough, but one has to ask whether the party as a whole really wants to pay the heavy political price of this kind of reticence.
Republican and conservative publications have a role to play in facilitating the kind of discourse that can help move the party into a new era. “Lessons learned” conferences, symposia, special journal issues and so on can allow a frank airing of differences and reflections, and give future political candidates and their teams some ideas about the best way to get rid of the bathwater while keeping the babies on board. There are moves afoot to develop new ‘vision statements’ for foreign policy and otherwise to reposition the GOP toward the future. That is a healthy sign, but those projects won’t succeed without engaging in a deep ‘lessons learned’ discussion.
Republicans and more broadly people who favor a strong national security policy and a globally engaged foreign policy don’t have to sit in sackcloth and ashes, they don’t have to say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” every time the New York Times publishes an editorial on an Iraq war anniversary, and they don’t have start every sentence with an apology. But they do need to show the country what they learned from the Bush years, and that they won’t crash the car if they ever get their hands back on the steering wheel.
The inability to tackle the Bush legacy has paralyzed the foreign policy debate among internationally minded, progressive Republicans. Criticisms of Obama, yes; defense of military spending, yes; ritualistic invocations of free trade, yes; opportunistic pot shots on issues like support for Israel or the Benghazi raid, yes. But partly because people are not ready to take on the Bush experience as fully and as critically as they should, there seems to be very little intellectual excitement in the world of GOP strategic thinking today.
That’s a pity; globaloney liberals and neo-isolationists can’t offer the country the guidance we need. Without a Hamiltonian resurgence of creative, forward looking and profoundly American thought about foreign policy in the tradition of people like George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, the United States and the world will have a much tougher 21st century than any of us want.